Letting bad drivers set the standard

One of the best teachers I’ve ever had at any level was my high school physics teacher. Not only did I love the subject and excel at it, but I really benefited from his teaching style. He explained it to me once; I can’t remember his exact words, but in essence, he taught to the top students. Those are the ones who will need it. The middle students will learn more from trying to keep up, and if they don’t get it all no big deal because they don’t really need to, and the bottom students aren’t going to get it anyway. I know this seems to leave the bottom students by the wayside, but as physics was not strictly a requirement there were actually very few of them, and as I recall he didn’t hold them up from graduating by giving them less than a 70 when they needed it. The appropriateness of this approach is probably debatable in other subjects, but it worked in what was essentially an honors class without the designation.

I think of this now because of how much extra time was added to my drive to work today by two drivers who drove very slowly side-by-side for most of the route. I understand that it’s possible in principle to get ticketed for driving too slowly, but I know of no first- or second-hand accounts of it actually happening. As I’ve written before, I think drivers going too slowly is a bigger problem than drivers speeding. A nice meandering drive in the countryside is one thing, but for day-to-day purposes the point is to get places, which during the day mainly means work. The drivers going too fast—which does not hold other people up—are penalized by the current incentive structure, while the drivers inching along—which I maintain causes most traffic problems—have no negative consequences other than the occasional car horn behind them.

In essence, the current incentive structure aims for the bottom, which if I’m right causes far more problems (including greater air pollution) than keeping traffic moving at a good clip. Moderate speeding is lumped together with truly dangerous driving behavior, when really one can exceed the speed limit safely—which a large percentage of drivers do whenever they can. Penalties should not be applied to moderately faster but otherwise safe driving. I recall when living in Atlanta that everybody routinely drove 20 mph faster than the posted speed limit on the interstate unless it was during rush hour, and that it was mainly the obviously reckless drivers who were ticketed. I understand that in other large cities the police feel that their main concern in situations like this is to keep traffic moving. Clearly it’s a very small percentage of drivers who speed that get into accidents that hamper the flow of traffic. In places like these, the people doing the least to hamper the flow of traffic, the safe speeders, are and should be the model group.

I know that there will always be old people and heavy trucks, and the road is also theirs to use. But their driving behavior becomes a problem with negative externalities when they do it in lanes other than the slow lane. I don’t suggest tickets should be given out for all slow drivers, only for drivers like the one in the large van I was stuck behind today, who could have gotten in the slow lane and let hundreds of cars behind him drive normally. Instead, he drove side-by-side with what I thought was an old lady for half an hour.

Update 2014-06-22: Vox has a great piece on how slow drivers in the left lane are dangerous.

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One thought on “Letting bad drivers set the standard

  1. Pingback: More notes about safe driving in traffic | Randall F. McElroy iii

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